Sustainability Spotlight: Grace Wickerson

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Grace Wickerson is a second year undergraduate at Brown College, where she serves as that college’s EcoRep. She is a social entrepreneur and the founder of the non-profit Kickin’ Violence. She is majoring in Materials Science. We met with Grace to discuss food, design thinking, space, and much more.

As soon as you arrived at Rice, you became actively involved in food activism. How did you become so passionate about food issues?

Grace Wickerson: I became vegetarian when I was 12 after being dared to watch an animal slaughter video. I was just so appalled by the conditions that these animals were raised in for food that I just couldn’t see myself ever eating meat again. I began my transition to veganism my senior year of high school and went fully vegan right at the start of college. I realized that if I wanted to have the most ethical diet with the least impact on the environment that I had to go vegan.

Is this how you also became interested in environmental issues?

GW: Yeah! So, I began getting involved in vegetarian and vegan activism in high school. I applied and was named a member of peta2’s Youth Advisory Board, which I served on for two years. I remember when I first began advocating for vegetarian and vegan diets the main focus was on animal rights and ethics, something which had worked to help me go vegan but often wasn’t ‘palatable’ to a lot of the people who I talked to. A lot of people poked fun at me for being one of those “crazy animal lovers”. Looking for another way to convince people to change their diets, I began reading more about the other impacts of animal agriculture, and became particularly interested in the environmental reasons for vegetarian and vegan diets. Basically, becoming vegan is actually one of easiest ways to cut your emissions, reduce your water consumption, mitigate food insecurity. With a lot of people now looking for ways to be more sustainable, people are a lot more willing to talk to me about being vegan.

How have you engaged with food issues at Rice?

GW: When I first got to Rice, the food options for vegans were OK, but often repetitive and lacking protein. I definitely saw a lot of room for improvement, so I ended up connecting with Rice’s peta2 representative at the time, Veronica Johnson, who got me involved in a project she’d been working on to improve vegan options at Rice. We started meeting with H&D staff to advocate for improving dining options and then ran a survey of about 300 students’ dietary needs and opinions on current options. The data came back showing that students with dietary restrictions (allergies, vegetarian, vegan, etc.) were more likely to express dissatisfaction with current options and expressed a need for improvement. We shared our data with all of the H&D staff last semester and since then have seen a lot of great changes to the line-up across the serveries. I’ve seen H&D hire a vegan chef to train the chefs on vegan cooking, a ton more variety in protein options, and really cool experimental dishes like Chef Kyle’s Vegan Mac & Cheese. I’ve also seen an increased focus on plant-based eating from H&D’s social media and an increased willingness to work on projects to promote plant-based options. Last semester, we had a team of five students compose a follow-up needs report for dining focusing on consistent protein on the line, better vegan breakfasts, and vegan desserts, just to name a few, and met with David McDonald several times to share our findings. This semester we’re trying to meet with all of the chefs to discuss our findings as well. I really love how because of Rice’s size and focus on student wellbeing, students with ideas and passions to make a difference can get their voices heard.

Your activism extends well beyond environmental issues. In high school, you founded a youth-oriented non-profit focused on prevention of violence. Tell us about the organization and its mission.

GW: I started my non-profit, Kickin’ Violence, in August of 2013. Now a nationally recognized nonprofit, Kickin' Violence seeks to inspire youth to engage in non-violence advocacy through education, service, and martial arts. This program uniquely integrates the philosophy behind martial arts, which is that of peace, justice, and respect, with awareness about domestic, dating, and sexual violence as well as bullying. We work largely by chartering youth-led action teams in schools all over the country and around the work that are trained to be activists of their campus as well as anti-violence educators and give back to help survivors of domestic violence. Our work has impacted over 20,000 young people all over the country and has raised $760K for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

What are the latest projects for Kickin’ Violence?

GW: So, at the moment we’re focusing in on building out our partnerships with schools to implement more action teams and anti-violence education and continuing to mobilize people to give back to survivors of domestic violence. We’re partnering with several school districts in Florida, including my home district of Sarasota and several districts in South Florida, and a couple charter schools in Houston to begin testing our peer-peer activism and education model, which empowers young people to be the leaders for healthy relationships at their middle/high schools. For our project to mobilize people to take action against violence, we’re working with several organizations at Rice (STRIVE, Senior Committee) and several community organizations (Big Brothers Big Sisters, several churches) to create care packages for domestic violence survivors and sexual assault survivors in the Houston community. We’re hoping to scale beyond Houston and Florida as we get more and more feedback from the people we work with on our programming and data that can help us get more grants and opportunities.

This semester you are teaching a class about design thinking and social impact. Did your experience with Kickin’ Violence inspire your desire to teach about establishing processes that can create social change?

GW: Design thinking is a problem-solving process that focuses on the problem from the user’s perspective, which enables the creation of lasting solution. The process can be defined in four major steps: problem definition, ideation, prototyping, and obtaining feedback in order to iterate, basically go through the whole progress or steps of the progress over again. I believe such a design process is critical towards actually tackling big problems in a sustainable way. Too much of today’s work for social good focuses on problems and not the people behind the problems. By switching the focus on users, we can build lasting solutions that actually address people’s needs. My experience with Kickin’ Violence definitely motivated me to work to empower other people to pursue their passions and interests in meaningful and impactful ways. I want to create systems through which people can effectively impart change and am starting at Rice with this college course. We’ll see where it goes from there!

You are majoring in Materials Science. Do environmental interests bring you to that major?

GW: The Materials Science and Nanoengineering program was actually one of the major reasons why I decided to come to Rice, as Rice has some of the best researchers in the field of nanotechnology in the world. I currently study soft materials, specifically pi-conjugated organic polymers for applications in electronic devices. I’m really interested in these materials because their end function can be controlled by the ultimate design and structure of the material itself, as any conjugated carbon structure could theoretically be used. While still a set of emerging technologies, organic electronics are beginning to challenge an increasingly materials-limited electronics industry. These materials are also more sustainable than those based on silicon or rare earth metals because of their safer, less energy-intensive, low-cost manufacturing and potential for biodegradability. Organic electronics will also allow for more accessible devices such as low-cost off-the-grid solar cells and low-cost sensors, which is super cool.

What would you like to do after you graduate?

GW: At the moment I’m considering pursuing a PhD in materials science or electrical engineering. I am drawn to materials science and nanotechnology due to the sheer possibilities for innovation in the field, especially in the fields of medicine, electronics, and energy. I want to focus my research on developing technologies that improve human life in a sustainable way or a way that has minimal impact on the environment, something that organic electronic devices address due to their low cost, biodegradability, and easy manufacturing. I’d love to work in academia because I’m interested in building education programs around tech transfer and social entrepreneurship. A big long-term goal is that I hope to create a think-tank that funds, develops, and implements innovative engineering technologies that solve the critical world issues in a sustainable way. I also want to develop curriculum to inspire these globally-minded engineers of the future and implement in communities around the world. By creating resources through which students can create social entrepreneurship ventures that utilize technology for social good, we can catalyze for social change.

Another interest of yours is space. How did you become interested in space, and what are your thoughts about the space program?

GW: I think NASA is just one of the best examples of what happens when you actually support science and engineering research. So many innovations came out of the investment into NASA that still impact our lives today, like LEDs just to name one. Growing up in Florida, I was able to go to NASA several times, and I also visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston and every time was just in awe of the scale at which innovation can happen. I’m hoping that sometime in my future I can convince NASA to let me do some cool materials science work and maybe get to go to space and test.

Did growing up in Florida shape your environmental interests as well?

GW: Definitely growing up in an area where the impacts of climate change have real repercussions made me more conscious of my environmental footprint. Most of Florida would go under water if we had the global temperature rise of just a few degrees, and that includes my hometown. Hurricanes being more frequent also impacts my home, especially during this hurricane season which put my parents without power. I was also made more conscious of environmental issues when I became a volunteer and then an intern at Mote Marine Laboratory and began working on ocean conservation and engaging in research around coral reef health. Coral reefs all over the world are being heavily impacted by climate change, threatening the massive number of species that call them home. Having a connection to the environment is important because it is always there to remind you of who you’re fighting for and why.

You’ve recently become involved helping to reduce the environmental impact of athletics at Rice. What have you worked on so far, and what are your plans for these efforts moving forward?

GW: This project kicked off last spring when Tanner Reese and I implemented a Sustainable Baseball Weekend in partnership with Rice Athletics. Working on that project, we became more and more aware of the environmental impact of athletic events, as well as work done by other universities to mitigate that impact. So, this last semester we began meeting with some key stakeholders on this problem, and so far we’ve spoken to and partnered with the Rice Environmental Society, the Rice Rally Club, Dr. Rob Griffin, and the Facilities Department of Athletics on our idea. We’re working this semester to talk to a few more stakeholders and then hopefully launch by the end of this semester. When formed we want to start by improving recycling in the athletic facilities, assessing the sustainability of the Athletics buildings, and implementing other sustainable projects as we see them come up!

Let’s end with where we began: food. We’d welcome your recommendations for where to get good vegan food off-campus, as well as what your favorite vegan dishes are on-campus.

GW: Off-campus, my favorite places for vegan food are Baba Yega, Loving Hut, Green Seed Vegan, Les Givrals (tofu banh mi, hold the mayo), and Aladdin’s. On-campus, I’m in love with Chef Kyle’s vegan tacos, Chef Ed’s vegan pot pie, and West Servery’s Cauliflower Hoisin.